When I claim that small groups, such as Sunday school classes, seem to parrot the party line, rather than engage in deep discussions, I often get blank, puzzled, or surprised reactions. So, when I read that Pastor Josh Hunt noticed the same thing as I did in his book Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking, I felt relieved and validated. I’m not imagining things or making up problems where they don’t exist.
Here are some of the types of questions that Hunt recommends asking to get people talking:
Get to know people with warm-up questions
Hunt suggests kicking off meetings with what he calls “life-exposure questions” that allows group members to get to know each other.
Posing these questions makes people feel welcome while also encouraging their participation. By getting them to talk early in the class or get-together, they’ll be more likely to speak later when questions become more thought-provoking and life-changing.
There are two types of life-exposure questions: 1) basic ones, such as “where did you grow up?” or “what’s your favorite local restaurant?” and 2) experience-related ones that prompt people to share an experience on a specific topic, which is then related to the study for the day. For example, you might ask how a member addressed a disagreement with a fellow Christian during a study of Acts 6:1-7. (Experience questions are an integral part of my course on Christian Community.)
In Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking, Hunt explains how to ask safe questions that won’t embarrass group members, particularly if responses don’t conform to local cultural norms. For example, instead of asking a newcomer about whether or not she has children, you might ask if she has family living in the area.
Lay the foundation with Bible study questions
After asking questions about day-to-day lives, move through the Bible study section of your discussion by asking questions about the content and its meaning.
start with simple fact-based questions
Hunt recommends beginning the study with “what does the passage say” questions. As leaders, we may be tempted to skip over these types of questions in an effort to avoid boring people with the basics. But Hunt argues we should be sure that our group members know what the Bible says as a foundation for learning and growing.
A basic question for the earlier reference to Acts, then, might be “who or what group was being neglected in the daily service?” The answer is easy to find and doesn’t require specialized knowledge, again encouraging people to respond as they consider what they’re studying.
Hunt suggests asking these basic questions interspersed with more complex questions relating to the meaning of the text.
go deeper with questions about text meaning
After considering what a Bible passage states, Hunt suggests exploring the meaning of the text. Questions about meaning may include these:
- What are the meanings of key words?
- What do scholars or theologians say about this text?
- What other passages use this word or cover this topic? (Find this answer using Bible Gateway or a Bible concordance)
- What have you learned from previous studies, books, or talks on this topic?
Hunt encourages teachers to use various resources and methods to delve into the meaning of the text. Research the words or topics prior to the session to guide class members in gaining an understanding of the text.
bring insight to the passage with questions about emotions
Exploring the possible thoughts and feelings of Biblical characters helps us bridge these ancient writings to today’s world. For example, we may find it difficult to grasp a facts-based lesson from Rahab’s story if we aren’t involved in prostitution, human trafficking, war, or espionage. However, we may have experienced fear and conflict when choosing sides or navigating complex situations.
A simple question, then, to spark discussion is “how did they feel?”
Again, responses help us understand the story better and gives us empathy for the characters and ourselves. If (soon-to-be) King David was scared and lonely while hiding in a cave, for example, then it’s okay to admit these feelings to God and our friends.
Encourage lively conversations with “jump ball” questions
Hunt borrows a term from sports and offers examples of dilemmas that illustrate a “jump ball” question. One is whether the Christian life is easy or hard, drawing on Bible verses that say it’s easy and others that claim it’s hard.
Such questions get people “to think, to argue, to defend their position, and to balance opposing views.” They also “get you in touch with the tension” of seemingly opposing ideas so you arrive at a discerning and Spirit-led clarity rather than espousing platitudes that sound right but don’t stand up under scrutiny.
Hunt never explains why he uses the phrase “jump ball” in his book. I surmise he’s referencing the basketball term. At the start of a game, the basketball is tossed between selected representatives of each team. The tallest players (usually the centers) are often these reps and they compete to claim the first possession of the ball, generally by jumping as high as possible to tip the ball to a teammate. Later in the game, when players of the opposing teams both seem to have equal claim to the ball, officials classify this struggle as a “jump ball situation” and award the ball using a rule of alternating possession. Instead of determining who should take possession of the ball through reasoning, the teams take turns.
John Piper describes the value of reconciling two superficially opposing ideas in his article How to Read the Bible for Yourself:
When I feel tension between two verses or passages, I never assume the Bible is inconsistent. I assume I’m not seeing all I need to see. If I have not seen enough to explain the apparent inconsistency, asking more questions will likely help me see more. Few things make us deeper and richer in our knowledge of God and his ways than this habit of asking how texts cohere in reality when at first they don’t look like they do.
So, jump-ball questions encourage group members to wrestle with the truth. These are the source of the liveliest conversations and, often, the most profound.
Incite change through application questions
Identifying how to apply the Bible to our lives is the next step, a critical and essential one to life change and transformation.
An overarching question to prompt applying Bible study to real life goes something like this: “what are you going to do differently?” or “how will you think, act, or feel differently as a result of this lesson?” Some folks may be inspired immediately by this question while others may need more questions to illuminate the path to positive change.
To inspire your group members and yourself to think about and act upon change, consider questions like these:
- Where are you now in regard to this topic?
- What are ways you can apply this lesson?
- What are the benefits to adopting a Biblical approach to this area of your life?
- What’s stopping you from making this change?
- What do you want to do about what you’ve learned?
In Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking, Hunt explains why he asks people what they want to do rather than telling them what to do. His position is that people commit and stick with what they want to do, not what they should do. So the idea is to encourage people in what God is calling them or nudging them to do in a way that’s Biblical but also understandable and doable.
There are many more lessons from Hunt’s book, including a section on accountability questions. He also discusses rationale for questions, offers examples from his life in ministry, and addresses common concerns of teachers. What makes me most happy is his practical and Biblical approach to making disciples through “lively, interesting, and on-task conversations.”
Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking shows small group leaders and Sunday School teachers how to develop questions to ask people in their groups or classes. If you’re looking for an easy-to-digest resource to get people talking, you’ll benefit from reading and re-reading this book.
What questions do you use to get people talking?